The role of stories and writing in support on TheSite.org

True stories on TheSite.org

On TheSite.org we have published editorialised true stories for years. These stories enabled us to give a more personal angle to some of the issues we were addressing in articles, and to cover other more ‘newsy’ issues. The range of stories reflects the range of issues we address on TheSite.org, from selling sex or coming off heroin to taking part in the student protests or waiting for a new heart. For the people involved, it is a chance to share or celebrate their experiences, perhaps to gain some perspective and to help others understand the issue they faced.

These kind of true stories on TheSite.org fall into the remit of the editorial team. Those who want to share their experience, or those we approach, tell their story to a journalist who then writes it up in the style of TheSite.org. Interestingly, we recently did some work with Radio 1’s Sunday Surgery ‘Sexuality Night’, providing support for their listeners on the Radio 1 Facebook page. We shared a range of relevant content from TheSite.org, but it was the true stories (namely ‘How I came out as bi’ and ‘The naked truth of asexuality’) which received the most views, shares and likes.

Personal stories as a means of support

In the Engagement and Support team, we have recently been exploring in more detail the impact and role of true or ‘personal’ stories in support.  Our newest service, Step Finder, allows users to submit their own stories, written with support from us if they wish, but generally unedited – more like a personal blog post or diary entry than a piece of edited content. We can look at role of stories in support from the perspective both from the writer and the readers.

The writer

Journaling and writing therapy have long been accepted as a valuable type of support and is often recommended by our experts on our askTheSite service. Often people who are in the middle of a complex situation, caught in endless rumination or are struggling to make sense of the ever shifting sands of their thoughts and emotions can find the process of getting their thoughts down on paper helpful. This can give them new perspective and enable them to see things more clearly. This might encourage them to take a step back from the muddle of their thoughts and make a clearer decision about their next steps.

Writing about a past event, and how they resolved it, can help people fit difficulties they faced in the past into the ‘story of their lives’ – something we all tell internally, and increasingly, externally. We also find that people often contact us, wanting to tell their story in order to help others and in doing so, creating a positive out of what was something negative for them.

A further outcome seems to be that the process of writing and reflecting on personal stories about their lives, unleashes a creativity people didn’t know they had. Unlike an article or an interview for a true story, writing for yourself allows you to explore your experience in a more creative and interesting way, one that genuinely reflects the nature of the situation for you.  I am exploring the role of metaphor in support in my next blog post.

The reader

Our personal stories section on Step Finder currently contains 29 stories, told in the words of young people themselves, These range from bereavement, to drug use, to finding a graduate job or getting over a cheating partner. We recently did some consultation with young people about their reaction to the personal stories on Step Finder. The insights we gained from this helped us to understand why it was the stories that people felt more inclined to share at the Radio 1 night. They also added weight to our view that  a space for personal stories of support, and barriers to support, were a valuable addition to the services TheSite.org offers.

We asked a user panel of young volunteers a number of questions including ‘how does it make you feel to read about someone talking about this issue?’, ‘did it help you understand your own situation or make you reassess your own situation?’, ‘would it encourage you to talk about it with others and seek more information?’.

The overwhelming focus of the responses was on the emotional impact of personal stories. While an article can give the facts of a situation, a story often speaks to the emotions. There were four main elements to this.

  • A story creates emotions;

It was clear that the stories created a range of emotions in those who read them. Many users spoke of empathy and even emotional release. Others spoke of feeling reassured, less alone, more connected and more positive. Some spoke of the story making them feel sad, but this in itself helping them feel less alone, as they also felt sad in a similar situation.

  • A story helps people understand and share emotions;

Many people chose to answer questions about stories that they related to in some way. They spoke of being shocked at the similarities in the stories to their own experience and explained how this helped them feel more understood and less alone. They recognised their feelings in others and saw them as more normal and ‘valid’. One of our panel put it very well; identifying with the emotions in a story enables shared emotions to become part of the support on offer – helping people accept and share the irrational side of a response to a situation as well as finding out the practical information about their next steps.

  • A story communicates emotions;

Some of our panel responded by saying that a story could have helped them when they were feeling a similar way, that they could have given the story to those close to them and explained that this was how they felt. In a way, it gave them the words to describe their own emotions.

  • A story inspires action;

One of our panel suggested they might use a story as a conversation starter to try and talk about an issue. Because the story described a whole situation, including the impacts of a certain decision, they felt they could use it as an example to encourage people in their lives to take their own decisions more seriously. Someone else said they were so moved by a story that they were inspired to volunteer to help others in a similar situation. Another user said that a story helped them make sense of some of the emotions they had felt in the past and encouraged them to talk about these to family more now. Someone else said they thought they would send a story to a friend in a similar situation to show them how someone else dealt with it on a personal level.

A journey

It’s clear that a space to share personal stories is a valuable addition to the more practical support and signposting that TheSite.org offers – both for those who write them and those who read them.

It’s also worth remembering that ultimately, the people who use our services don’t necessarily fall into just one of the categories of reader and writer. Many of the young people who use our services go on a journey which can start by looking for support for themselves, perhaps finding a personal story which inspires them to look for further support on an issue. They find articles or signposts on TheSite.org or Step Finder to help them take their next step. As they receive support from us and other services, resolving or managing their problem, they start to offer peer support and information to others – seeing their issue in a wider context of support. When they feel they have overcome a particular problem, or gained a perspective on it, they will tell their story publically and maybe get involved in some of our other volunteering opportunities in order to help others in the future.

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Clare Foster

About Clare Foster

Clare is Advice and Training Manager. One of her main roles is to train and support volunteers and charity partners to provide expert answers through askTheSite. She is also involved in creating accreditation opportunities with OCNLR, bringing e learning to YouthNet and improving the quality and scope of the support services we offer. She blogs personally about mental health, relationships and young people here. Prior to YouthNet, she worked as an advisor for Connexions Direct, taught environmental philosophy part time and spent ten months in Tanzania and Kenya, developing sex education and life skills with young people there.
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